National won’t fight to win the election. Rather, it will try to make Labour lose.
With legitimate flaws around Covid-19 testing and the management of the border coming to light, National has a whole heap of material to attack the Government over.
It’s fulfilling its duty, holding the Government to account.
National’s health spokesperson Shane Reti made a sensible response to a ministerial statement in the House on Tuesday and got Health Minister Chris Hipkins to concede he received weekly Ministry of Health updates that demonstrated “incomplete testing at the border”.
But rather than do the difficult task of putting forward a compelling case as to how it would get the same group of public servants to do a better job at the frontline, National is opting to erode confidence in the Government.
Its response doesn’t shout, “Vote for National!” It whispers, “Can you really trust Labour?”
National is trying to win back support lost to Labour by casting doubt on its capability and integrity.
This is understandable, but National’s approach risks becoming dangerous when A. It involves misleading information, and B. We’re in the midst of a pandemic.
Of course, the Government’s response needs to be critiqued, but at a basic level, the situation is virus vs. human. Some degree of cohesion among members of “Team Human” is required.
It’s fair for National to try to undermine the Government, but it cannot undermine public health in the process.
A qualified apology
National's deputy leader, Gerry Brownlee, has come very close to doing so on two occasions.
As New Zealanders last week found out there was transmission of Covid-19 in the community, Brownlee made people question whether the Government had known something the rest of us didn’t.
He said the Prime Minister’s trip to a mask factory, discussions about mask-wearing and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield getting tested for Covid-19 were “an interesting series of facts”.
In the face of accusations that he was dog whistling to conspiracy theorists, Brownlee pulled back a little. But it was too late. He’d thrown the grenade, legitimising the circulation of nasty rumours.
When quizzed about this on Tuesday, Brownlee said he apologised on Newstalk ZB, but wouldn’t clear the air by making a straight-forward apology in front of a press pack.
"I've said I'm sorry people have taken it as being some kind of conspiracy accusation, it was never meant to be like that," he said.
But Brownlee didn’t walk away from what he insinuated last week, instead saying, "Well I just think that it's interesting that the man at the top of the tree was, at 102 days of clear, suddenly wanting to get tested.”
Brownlee hasn’t provided evidence of government ministers and apolitical public servants hiding knowledge of Covid-19 community transmission from New Zealanders.
Until he does, his comments are stoking distrust in authorities as they try to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Media - an easy target
Adding fuel to the fire, Brownlee on Monday night tried to discredit the media, which had spent days dispelling rumours circulated on social media about how Covid-19 spread to the community.
An email, sent to National supporters in Brownlee’s name, said: “But with endless wall to wall coverage, the deep resources of government, and a favourable media, it is hard for anyone not to see Labour have the cards stacked in their favour.”
Challenged by media on Tuesday for implying reporters were somehow biased, Brownlee said, "The reality is that the Prime Minister is on the airwaves every day at one o'clock if she chooses to be and the initiatives that are coming from Government are going to be covered more extensively.”
He didn’t accept there was a difference between this and his statement that the media had provided “favourable” coverage.
Brownlee couldn’t provide examples of this “favourable” coverage, saying reporters were being “precious”.
The Peters playbook
New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters has for some time taken a similar approach, attacking the media.
Furthermore, he on Tuesday again waded into murky territory, saying there have now been two “security breaches” at the border, when in fact the source of the first Auckland cluster is unknown.
Asked to explain how exactly Covid-19 came through the border, Peters said this was a question that “wasn’t worth answering”.
“It’s not a rumour. I’m saying it’s been fact,” he said.
Peters last week did an interview with international media, claiming the Auckland cluster came from a border breach without providing evidence. Like Brownlee’s comment, this comment preceded a weekend of wild rumours.
Peters went on to distance New Zealand First from these supposed border breaches, saying, “I’m not in charge of that. None of my colleagues of New Zealand First are in charge of those issues. Other ministers have to explain to you what happened there.”
You could argue this writer is getting caught up in semantics and defensive of her industry, which is far from perfect, but discrediting the media on top of providing unverified information is particularly dangerous at a time the media has a particularly important job to hold authorities to account and provide essential information.
It’s also concerning as all political parties (including Labour) increasingly side-step the scrutiny of the media and connect directly with voters via social media.
Labour open for attack
Labour has left itself open to stone-throwing from the Opposition, and its coalition partner, by making the election a referendum on its handling of Covid-19.
Without much policy yet, it's no wonder the Opposition has jumped at the opportunity to nail it over Covid-19 finding its way into the community.
But without, at this stage at least, providing a cohesive plan around how it would do better, National's messaging is "Don't vote Labour", more than it is, "Do vote National".
Simon Bridges’ negativity frustrated the public. But National must be of the mind the public's tolerance for Covid-19 is wearing thin and it's time to capitalise on any rising tides of discontent, particularly as job losses start to bite.
Even if people don't believe the rumours, or buy into the unsubstantiated insinuations in Brownlee and Peters' comments, an accumulation of this rhetoric over the next two months could give new Jacinda Ardern converts cold feet.
At the very least, it puts a contest of ideas even further out of sight.